Out of the thousands of memorable photographs taken by David Douglas Duncan in his long and distinguished career, one particularly haunts me. Taken in North Korea in the winter of 1950, it shows U.S. Marine riflemen walking down a frozen road alongside a tarpaulin-covered military vehicle, probably an ammunition trailer, on which the frozen bodies of their dead are stacked like cordwood.

At first glance the image is almost repellent, as if these bodies are being treated with disrespect. The men alongside are trudging down the mountain road in “route step,” rather than marching in cadence, and they appear casual. One has a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. But the photo tells a deeper story: The men on their feet are bringing out their dead after a setback that could have become a disaster. Suddenly surrounded by Chinese troops at the Chosin (or Changjin) Reservoir, the First Marine Division fought its way out. Survivors called themselves the Chosin Few.

It is easy to imagine other troops in this situation tossing out the bodies and jumping on the vehicles so they could ride instead. These men have had no such thoughts. They never doubted that their role was to slog alongside while their dead comrades ride. Marines bring out their dead.

In its own way, the picture is as iconic as Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. But that image is a celebration of triumph. This one is a tribute to loyalty. These Marines are paying the highest imaginable price to make good on their motto: Semper Fidelis, “Always Faithful.” As a retired Navy chief petty officer said of the Marines at a World War II commemoration I was once assigned to cover, “They have never, ever let you down, and they never, ever will.”

Beneath the surface of David Douglas Duncan’s striking picture of fidelity is yet another lesson: Heroism vindicates only itself. It cannot justify foolish policy. The men in the photo were forced to fight their way out of an untenable position into which their top commanders put them. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur later rationalized his decision to push up to the border of China in the face of warnings the Chinese would respond in force. “I myself felt we had reached up, sprung the Red trap, and escaped it,” he wrote in his Reminiscences.

Sometimes it happens that warriors leave something lasting behind — perhaps a monument like those scattered all around Gettysburg, perhaps the unadorned memory of their heroism. The spot at Thermopylae where 300 Spartans kept hordes of Persians away from Greece was marked by a simple stone that said, in translation, “Go and tell the Spartans, you stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

In the tradition of Sparta, that inscription was succinct. By contrast, citizens of the rival city-state, Athens, traditionally honored their heroes with lengthy funeral orations. The historian Thucydides wrote down one he attributed to the Athenian leader Pericles after one of the first battles of the Peloponnesian wars in which Athens and Sparta fought for supremacy in their peninsula. The speech survives as a stirring reminder of the duty of Athenians to their city-state and to their fallen.

But often the efforts of heroes leave little trace. Two centuries after Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and his squad of Marines stormed the shores of Tripoli to thwart the Barbary pirates, Muammar Qaddafi runs Libya and pirates again prey upon international shipping. The banana republics where Marine hero Smedley Butler won two Medals of Honor, before concluding “War Is A Racket,” still seem restive. The Japanese flag again flies over Iwo Jima.

The frustrating and inconclusive conflict in Korea falls somewhere in between these examples. That country today is divided, as it was before the war began. For me, however, this photo offers a final, personal lesson: If it were not for troops like these, a woman who turned out to be my daughter-in-law would still be over there, at the mercy of North Korea’s Dear Leader, and two of my grandchildren would not even exist.

I hope they grow up to appreciate the Chosin Few.

Copyright 2009, J.V. Reistrup